Learning to live with limits

Hot water pipe in the bathroom

I was planning to take a shower this morning, but as I walked in the bathroom, I sensed there was no hot water. No, I’m not psychic. The floor and pipes on the wall are warm when there’s hot water (it is part of the building’s heating system), so I can feel it almost right away when I walk through the bathroom door. If it’s cool in the bathroom, there will be no hot shower. It’s currently -29°F outside, so even though it’s warm inside, my body is saying no, please, no, no cold water! So I may skip the shower this morning and try later in the day. The hot water may come on again, or it may be a few days, like it was last time. Emma and I both take cold showers regularly here. She more often than I, because she showers in the evening when there’s often no hot water left. I shower in the morning, when the water is scalding. Either way, a plain old hot shower (not scalding, not lukewarm) is one of the things we are both looking forward to when we are back in the US for Christmas.

I knew when I decided to move to Mongolia with my daughter that she’d get a pretty extensive educational experience. And one of the things I was hoping she’d learn is that life in most of the world isn’t as comfortable as it is in Carlsbad. Even so, our life in Mongolia is much easier than I thought it would be. We have a really nice apartment (lack of hot water aside–at least we have water!), we’re across the street from a pretty abundant supermarket and some well-stocked smaller shops, and the transportation is good (insane traffic jams aside). Even so, some of the things she has had to get used to, besides not always having hot water, include having erratic WiFi (“We’re lucky to have it at all!”), not having a car and driver to take her everywhere (I’m loving not driving), and not always being able to find exactly what she wants at the supermarket.

The last one has been the toughest one so far. It even took me a while to get the hang of how supermarkets seem to work here. Where we lived in the US, which is a pretty affluent suburb of San Diego, I sometimes complained about having to go to three different stores to get everything we“needed.” Really, we could have managed very well on what was available at just one store, but Emma has very narrow food tolerances (no allergies or medical issues, just what she is and is not willing to put in her mouth because certain tastes and textures make her gag), so I would end up grocery shopping at a couple of different places each week.

Here, though, we have had to figure out what food she likes almost from scratch. Fortunately, there’s pasta, rice, beans, and eggs almost everywhere. The beans are in cans, but that’s OK. It’s relatively easy to find red kidney beans, as well as baked beans, which she became fond of when we were in Australia. The only thing we haven’t been able to find is lentils. Tofu (a staple in California) is hard to get, since we both think the Mongolian tofu doesn’t taste very good, and we can only get the Korean tofu at e-Mart, which we don’t go to very often. Also, Emma really doesn’t like Mongolian milk or other dairy products, so finding a substitute has not been easy. There’s milk from Korea (amusingly called Seoul Milk) that she likes, but the local store only carries small drink boxes sometimes. I buy them all when I see them (trying hard not to think about the packaging waste). We have also found soymilk that she loves, and an oat milk she tolerates. But none of these are particularly easy to get from where we live.

Also, while we have found food that we like, and Emma has found some food that she loves, some things are only available in batches. The Seoul Milk drink boxes are an example. I only see them sometimes at a few stores. Larger, one-liter containers are available at e-Mart, but when we bring three or four home, Emma drinks them very quickly, and then the cow milk is gone until our next trip to e-Mart. The soymilk she really likes comes in cases of drink boxes (again, packaging waste!), but the last time we were at e-Mart, there weren’t any. We bought one-liter containers of another kind of soymilk,but she didn’t like the flavor. There is also a vanilla yogurt that she really likes, but it’s only available every few weeks. When it is, we buy them all (usually eight or ten half-cup containers), but then we don’t see them again for weeks. Pasta sauce is another example. When we got here, there was a pasta sauce that she liked, but then it disappeared, and the other kinds that came along didn’t taste good to her. We finally found it again at a store near her school, and I bought three cans.

Also, our grocery shopping is limited to what we can carry, or often what I can carry, since she increasingly opts out of coming along when I’m just going across the street. I’m not a big fan of shopping, so in the US I would usually stock up on things, because I had a car to carry everything home in. Here, I can’t buy a ton of milk, say (it comes in Tetrapaks so it’s the kind that lasts a long time). Only three or four liters at a time, because I’m also buying other stuff that I have to carry. The whole exercise of functioning without a car has been interesting, more for her than me because I’ve gone much of my adult life without a car, and old habits come back quickly.

So, living here is a good lesson in understanding that it’s not always possible to have exactly what you want. It’s certainly not a lesson in deprivation, because our life here has been quite easy and comfortable so far. But she’s starting to realize in a very immediate way that life in much of the world can be very different from life in Carlsbad, CA. It’s also opened the way for a lot of conversations about poverty and income inequality that are possible in the US (just go to certain neighborhoods in San Diego, or parts of San Diego County), but that take on a different meaning when she has a chance to see a completely different way of life.

One example is the difference between Naran Tuul market and the Shangri-La Mall. Naran Tuul used to be Ulaanbaatar’s “black market,” until it got the state’s stamp of approval. It is the big open-air market that sells everything from sofas (we got ours there) to clothing, from animal pelts to car parts. You can find almost anything there. Prices are low, even lower if you are or are with a Mongolian. The quality of the goods is mixed, but chances are, if you need something, you will find it at Naran Tuul. You just may have to walk through a dusty, confusing (and these days, really cold) labyrinth of lots of other stuff to find it.

In contrast, the Shangri-La Mall is about as glitzy as Ulaanbaatar gets. It’s next to the Shangri-La Hotel, which is pretty swank: crystal chandeliers and shining marble floors that would be at home in any major city around the world. The mall could be in any city as well; it has a generic mall environment and many of the same stores we’d see at the mall in California. There are also Mongolian stores, but they have that upscale, cosmopolitan mall look and feel. Very different from the stalls at Naran Tuul. Here you can see teenagers on their cell phones, choosing between the juice bar or boba tea, just like teenagers would in Carlsbad. The stores for the most part have American prices, too, putting much of what they carry out of the price range of the Mongolians I spend most of my time with.

Emma hasn’t been exposed directly to much poverty here yet (though I’m planning some excursions), But she does have much more of an understanding of what life can be like in a country where the average GDP per capita is just under $4,000 (as opposed to $53,000 for the USA). Mongolia is classified as a “lower middle income” country by the World Bank (so more of its population is better off than Ethiopia, for example—to think of another country where I’ve lived). Since the switch to capitalism here after the collapse of the Soviet Union, income inequality has grown tremendously, and poverty has increased, so it’s also been a lesson in the effects of capitalism that we tend to take for granted in the USA as well.

4 thoughts on “Learning to live with limits

  1. No hot water in the morning would be hard for me since that’s what gets me out of bed (though I’m keenly aware that the world will probably experience some of these “inconveniences” if not an ice age soon!). Then again, I long for a bath tub. That’s my form of deprivation these days. I’m so impressed with your adventure. Emma’s cold showers amaze me. Love your photos of the outdoor mall, and the indoor – yep, just like here. Now when you say being Mongolian or with one will lower the price, is that all by appearance, or is there a local money like Berkshire Bucks?

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    1. Hi Marie! I mean there’s a tendency to bilk foreigners here because they are perceived as having more money than local people. A couple of times I’ve had taxi drivers ask for outrageous amounts (10 times what I knew I was supposed to pay). It’s not nearly as bad as in Ethiopia or Egypt (examples only because those are countries where I lived). I didn’t even know about Berkshire Bucks–I guess they are called BerkShares–and I lived in the Berkshires, but a long time ago.

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    1. Yeah, I love all the local currencies that have popped up here and there! We actually had warm water this morning, but I didn’t have time to take a shower, because I was writing another post. Maybe tonight or tomorrow!

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